Sept. 2, 2010
An Inaugural Ball Impressive openers by first-year Notre Dame coaches have been routine
By Lou Somogyi
Since 1913, when Jesse Harper was hired as Notre Dame’s first athletic director and also took over as the head football coach, almost every Irish boss has enjoyed a resounding “Inaugural Ball.”
Jesse Harper (1913) Opponent/Date: Ohio Northern, Oct. 4 at Notre Dame’s Cartier Field. Result: Notre Dame romped to an 87-0 decision, the largest margin of victory in an Irish coaching debut. All-American fullback Ray Eichenlaub scored four times, highlighted by a 70-yard run. Fact: A senior wide receiver named Knute Rockne was sidelined early in the contest after he suffered torn rib cartilage. Season Outcome: In a watershed year for the football program, the Irish finished 7-0 after completing a four-game November road sweep of Army (35-13), Penn State (14-7), St. Louis’ Christian Brothers (20-7) and Texas (30-7).
Knute Rockne (1918) Opponent/Date: Case Tech (now known as Case Western), Sept. 28, near Cleveland, Ohio. Result: After falling behind 6-0 in the first quarter and tied 6-6 at halftime, Notre Dame pulled away to a 26-6 victory on two second-half scoring runs by Curly Lambeau and one by George Gipp. Fact: A freshman in 1918, Lambeau became the co-founder of the Green Bay Packers in 1919. He and George Halas won the most NFL titles as coaches (6), and Green Bay’s Lambeau Field is named in his honor. Season Outcome: The opener would be Notre Dame’s last game until Nov. 2 en route to a 3-1-2 finish. The October portion of the schedule was cancelled throughout the nation because of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which would kill an estimated 50 to 100 million people across the world in approximately three years.
Hunk Anderson (1931) Opponent/Date: Indiana, Oct. 3, at Bloomington. Result: Notre Dame held a 6-0 halftime lead on a 70-yard scoring run by Joe Sheeketski, and then dominated the second half in its 25-0 victory. Fact: In the midst of The Great Depression, only 12,098 were in attendance. Season Outcome: The death of head coach Rockne in a plane crash on March 31, 1931 cast a pall on the season that finished with losses to USC and Army and a 6-2-1 record.
Elmer Layden (1934) Opponent/Date: Texas, Oct. 6 at Notre Dame Stadium. Result: The Irish fumbled the opening kickoff that the Longhorns recovered. Four plays later Texas scored for a 7-0 advantage that would hold up in its 7-6 victory. Notre Dame tallied in the second quarter, but Wayne Millner — one of four Irish players enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame — missed the extra point. Fact: Texas head coach Jack Chevigny, who would get killed in action during World War II, was a former halfback for Rockne just like legendary Four Horseman Layden. Chevigny scored a touchdown in the 12-6 “One For The Gipper” win against Army in 1928 and served as Anderson’s “junior coach” at Notre Dame after Rockne’s death in 1931. Season Outcome: The Irish finished with three consecutive victories for a final 6-3 ledger.
Frank Leahy (1941) Opponent/Date: Arizona, Sept. 27 at Notre Dame. Result: Leading only 13-7 at halftime, the Irish cruised to a 38-7 conquest, with Dippy Evans’ 78-yard touchdown run in the third quarter the top highlight. Fact: Leahy surprised everyone when he had sophomore left halfback Angelo Bertelli, Notre Dame’s first Heisman Trophy winner, slinging the ball liberally in the first quarter, completing six of seven passes and a 16-yard touchdown pass to Bob Dove. Season Outcome: “The Master” joined Harper as the lone Notre Dame coaches since 1913 to remain unbeaten in their first year. The 8-0-1 Irish finished No. 3 in the Associated Press poll.
Terry Brennan (1954) Opponent/Date: Texas, Sept. 25, at Notre Dame. Result: Senior quarterback Ralph Guglielmi had maybe the greatest opener by a Notre Dame player when the No. 2 Irish shut out the No. 4 Longhorns, 21-0. Guglielmi intercepted a school record three passes, completed 6 of his 10 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, and scored the other two TDs on three-yard runs. Fact: This victory marked the only time the Irish opened a season by defeating a top-10 — or even top-20 — ranked team. Season Outcome: Only 26 years old, Brennan’s 9-1 debut resulted in a No. 4 finish in the AP poll, one behind Leahy for highest at Notre Dame (at the time) by a first-year coach.
Joe Kuharich (1959) Opponent/Date: North Carolina, Sept. 26 at Notre Dame. Result: In the first Irish opener in 32 years played in the rain, Notre Dame overcame 120 yards in penalties with a 28-8 victory against the Tar Heels while holding them to 160 yards total offense. Jim Crotty scored twice, on 3- and 19-yard runs. Fact: Kuharich put his stamp on the program when Notre Dame opened in blue jerseys with gold shoulder stripes. The Irish had donned green during the Leahy and Brennan eras. Season Outcome: Notre Dame closed strong with victories against No. 16 Iowa (20-19) and No. 7 USC (16-6), but finished only 5-5.
Ara Parseghian (1964) Opponent/Date: Wisconsin, Sept. 26 at Madison. Result: On a rainy afternoon, a Notre Dame program that was 2-7 a year earlier and 34-45 the previous eight years is so impressive in its 31-7 victory on the road, it moved up to No. 9 in the AP. From 1962-68, the AP had only a Top 10. Fact: Senior quarterback John Huarte’s 270 yards passing (on 15 completions in 24 attempts) eclipsed the 239 yards that starter Frank Budka had the entire 1963 season. Senior Jack Snow hauled in 61- and 42-yard scoring receptions from Huarte. Season Outcome: The “Resurrection” campaign ended with a 9-1 record and No. 3 finish in the AP poll, tying Leahy for highest ever under a first-year coach. The Irish also were awarded the MacArthur Bowl, emblematic of a national title, by the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame.
Dan Devine (1975) Opponent/Date: Boston College, Sept. 15 at Foxboro, Mass. Result: Second-half TD runs by fullback Jim Browner (10 yards) and halfback Al Hunter (24 yards) led the Irish to a 17-3 victory in the nationally televised Monday Night game. It was the first time an Irish head coach made his debut on national TV and in a night game. Fact: Merely five days after this victory, Notre Dame won 17-0 at Purdue, earning Devine and quarterback Rick Slager a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline, “Devine Week For Irish.” Season Outcome: After finishing with their first three-loss regular season (8-3) in 12 years Notre Dame players voted not to go to a bowl game. The Irish also failed to place in the final AP Top 20.
Gerry Faust (1981) Opponent/Date: LSU, Sept. 12 at Notre Dame. Result: Notre Dame scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions for a 20-0 lead, with quarterbacks Blair Kiel and Tim Koegel both directing scoring drives. It coasted from there to a 27-9 win. The Irish wore “Madonna Blue” jerseys, a departure from the green in Devine’s last three-and-a-half seasons. Fact: Because top-ranked Michigan lost its opener at Wisconsin, Faust joined Brennan as the lone Notre Dame coaches to rise to No. 1 after their first game. “I think I’ll retire now,” joked Faust at his postgame press conference. Season Outcome: A week after the initial euphoria, the Irish were routed 25-7 at Michigan to begin a downward spiral toward a 5-6 season, the school’s first losing campaign since 1963.
Lou Holtz (1986) Opponent/Date: Michigan, Sept. 13 at Notre Dame. Result: Just like Layden in 1934, Holtz lost his debut by one point, 24-23, to the No. 3 Wolverines, quarterbacked by Jim Harbaugh. One of the greatest kickers in history, John Carney, missed an extra point and then a 45-yard field goal attempt with 18 seconds left in the contest. Fact: While racking up 455 yards total offense, Notre Dame became the first opponent in head coach Bo Schembechler’s 18 seasons at Michigan to not have to punt. However, three Irish turnovers inside Michigan’s 20 proved costly. Season Outcome: Playing a schedule ranked the third toughest in the country, the Irish finished 5-6 while losing five games by a total of 14 points.
Bob Davie (1997) Opponent/Date: Georgia Tech, Sept. 6 at Notre Dame. Result: In the rededication of Notre Dame Stadium that is expanded by 21,000 seats, junior running back Autry Denson scores the winning touchdown from the one with 2:37 left in the contest to cap an 11-play, 70-yard drive in the 17-13 Irish triumph. Fact: Georgia Tech head coach George O’Leary was tabbed as Davie’s successor five years later … well, at least for a few days anyway. Season Outcome: A 2-5 start turned into a 7-6 finish. The six losses tied Faust for the most by a first-year Irish coach.
Tyrone Willingham (2002) Opponent/Date: Maryland, Aug. 31 at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Result: Willingham became the first Irish coach since Brennan in 1954 to see his team pitch a shutout, 22-0, in the Kickoff Classic against the No. 21 Terrapins. Like Guglielmi in 1954, senior cornerback Shane Walton intercepted three passes. Fact: All of Notre Dame’s points came on special teams: a school record-tying five field goals by Nicholas Setta, one from 51 yards, and a 76-yard punt return in the third quarter by Vontez Duff. Setta also kicked the extra point. Season Outcome: A surprising 8-0 start elevated Notre Dame to No. 4 in the country after starting unranked and elicited some comparisons to Parseghian. But a 2-3 finish, with a 28-6 Gator Bowl loss to North Carolina State, ended it at 10-3 (the most wins by a first-year Irish coach).
Charlie Weis (2005) Opponent/Date: Pittsburgh, Sept. 3 at Pitt. Result: Against the No. 23 Panthers, the Irish exploded for 28 second-quarter points on their way to a 42-21 conquest. It was the most points by a new Irish coach in his opener since Harper rung up 87 in 1913. Fact: Notre Dame’s 275 yards rushing in this game were the most in any contest by the Irish during Weis’ five seasons. Halfback Darius Walker totaled 100 yards on 20 carries, while fullback Rashon Powers-Neal tallied three touchdowns. Season Outcome: Despite a 34-20 setback to Ohio State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame ended up No. 9 in the final AP poll — its first top 10 finish in 12 years.
Lou Somogyi is the senior editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated.